Good intentions are never enough

Published on Sunday, 5 January 2014 22:52 - Written by

Progressives tend to evaluate their policies by intentions. But good intentions are never enough — results matter. That’s why, when President Barack Obama renews his push for universal pre-kindergarten education, we must take a good look at whether universal pre-k actually does much good.

“In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama proposed a ‘Preschool for All’ initiative, pledging $75 billion in new federal funding over a period of 10 years,” David Armor and Sonia Sousa in National Affairs write. “In a partnership with the states, the federal government would provide the majority of funds needed for the implementation of ‘high-quality’ preschool for all 4-year-old children whose families make up to 200 percent of the poverty line. The federal government would also provide incentives for states to offer preschool to all remaining middle-class children, thus approaching ‘universal’ preschool.”

There’s already a federal preschool program, and it’s reasonable to look at Head Start’s results when we’re talking about universal pre-k.

“The Head Start program has been evaluated using the most sophisticated research designs available to social scientists, and the results have been disappointing,” Armor and Sousa explain. “While Head Start appears to produce modest positive effects during the preschool years, these effects do not last even into kindergarten, much less through the early elementary years. These findings suggest that, if a new universal preschool program is to have greater success, something about the new program will have to be different.”

Of course, supporters say the new program would be “high quality.”

It’s likely they’ll start with the qualifications of the teachers. “High quality” will probably mean instruction will come from teachers with college degrees. That may provide a boost to teaching programs at universities — and to the rolls of the teacher unions — but such a requirement would make the program vastly more expensive.

And as Armor and Sousa point out, “teaching basic vocabulary or numeracy skills to this age group does not require years of formal study or a complex curriculum, otherwise untrained middle-class parents would not be such good teachers for their young children.”

We all want young children, particularly young disadvantaged children, to succeed in school. And it may seem heartless to apply a cost-benefit analysis to something that might help.

But it’s entirely appropriate to do so. Our children deserve the best outcomes, not merely the best intentions.

“It would be unwise for the federal government to invest $75 billion in universal preschool when it is not at all clear that Head Start or other preschool programs have positive long-term effects on participants,” Armor and Sousa say. “The HSIS evaluation, the Bernardy study of the same data, and the Tennessee study remain the most rigorous studies conducted to date on the effectiveness of preschool programs. These studies do not find preschool to be effective in increasing long-term cognitive or social and emotional outcomes. In cost-benefit terms, we cannot claim that the $8,000-per-child Head Start program is cost effective.”

So instead, let’s have a conversation about better ways to ensure school success.